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India: Child labor excesses are seen beyond carpet industry


JANUARY 31 – FEBRUARY 14, 1995

India: Child labor excesses are seen beyond carpet industry

By Ashali Varma

NEW DELHI, India—Little Shyamu walked through a maze of small shops lugging a white garbage bag almost as big as himself.  He stopped from time to time to rummage through garbage heaps, collecting plastic bottles, paper, tin and whatever else he would get a few paise for.  He did not go to school, he said, but helped his family by earning a living selling garbage.  Shyamu did not know his age but looked about 5 years old.

There are thousands of children like Shyamu in every major town and city of India who supplement a family income selling newspapers, working as domestics, sorting and selling, garbage, and begging.

But Shyamu’s situation is almost acceptable in a country where it is estimated that almost 100 million children are employed in some form of labor.

The real horror stories of child labor according to the South Asian Coalition on Child  Servitude (SACCS), are seldom written about.  Millions of children between the ages of 5 and 16 work as bonded slaves in carpet weaving, the fire cracker and match industry, in quarries and mines.  Taken from destitute parents by ruthless factory owners with promises of a good salary, food and shelter, and the teaching of a trade, these children never get to see their parents again. Beaten, starved, and frightened they work up to 12 hours a day. In addition, countless young girls are sold to prostitution where death is their only escape.

SACCS was started in India in 1982 and works with over 200 nongovernmental organizations in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. Since its inception SACCS has liberated more than 27,000 children from bondage through direct action which may involve raids to rescue children from small scale industries which are often heavily guarded. During the raids the local NGOs have been beaten and some have even been killed. Sometimes the children are so traumatized and scared that when they arc returned to their parents they refuse to recognize them as they fear that the factory owners will harm their parents.  Even parents are afraid to speak before the courts and the police and in many cases the employer gets away with a small fine.

“Even the educated people don’t know the extent of the atrocities that are committed on these children,” said Revote Sharma. “We have to create a campaign of awareness to make citizens take action against what is going on.”

Sharma is a 22-year old student of commercial art at the Delhi School of Art. For her project she chose an advertising campaign against child labor. With the help of SACCS she learnt about children working 12 to 16 hours a day in brick kilns, match factories, and in road-side dhabas (eating places on highways), and as prostitutes.

“I discovered that 7- and 8-year old children get up at 4 AM to collect wood and water and then they cook, clean and serve food to truck drivers till late at night,” said Sharma.  The child gets no pay, maybe a tip if he is lucky and meal.

In the fire cracker industry, Sharma said, it was even worse.  Children work with toxic and dangerous chemicals, under no supervision or safeguards and a small mistake can cause an explosion which often kills, burns, and maims kids for life.  Recently it was reported in the newspapers that in a factory in Howrah in Bengal, 17 children died and 140 were injured in an explosion. 

Sharma said that for her the most surprising part was that when she spoke about these incidents to educated people, they defended child labor as the only way a child can survive in a country of such extreme poverty as India.  “What they don’t realize is the conditions under which the children work and why in the first place are children given the jobs in a country where there is mass unemployment of adults?” said Sharma

The answer is obvious, Sharma explained, children work for nothing, they can’t form unions or demand better terms, they are suppressed, taken advantage off and made to work much harder.  “It frightens me to think of what these children will grow up to be, whether they can ever live normally with the psychological scars created by years of

systematic abuse and deprivation,” she said. Sharma feels strongly that much more

has to be done by mass media to stop the exploitation of children. About her own ad

campaign she said, “I wanted my ads to jolt people into action, that is why I decided to

use a juxtaposition of animal visuals with photos of suffering children.”

With headlines like “Trapped,” “Stripped,” and “Crushed,” Sharma wanted to startle the reader into realizing that children are facing the same risks and abuse that people associate with cruelty to animals.

Haven for a few lucky ones

NEW DELHI, India-Situated on the north east outskirts of Delhi, in the village of Ibrahimpur is a safe haven for children called Mukti Ashram. Started by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, in 1991, the Ashram is a transitory rehabilitation and vocational training center for children freed from bonded labor.

The younger children under the age of 14 receive basic literacy, health, hygiene and social training while the older children receive vocational training which includes carpentry, welding, weaving, tailoring and masonry.

The courses last three months and prepare the children, who are often traumatized by their experiences, to face life back home with more confidence and to resist injustice and  exploitation.

With limited resources the Ashram has been able to train about a 1000 children since  it was set up.

Most of the older children have become economically independent in their native villages and have taught their communities to struggle for their rights.

SACCS also runs eleven other centers for children freed from bonded labor in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi.

The ashram is funded by donations and contributions.

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